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  India: State, history and self - 2  

  Middle class
  Vol I : issue 3

  Ashis Nandy
  Amit Chaudhuri
  Kamala Das
  Paula Gunn Allen
Karen Swenson
  Only in Print

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Ashis Nandy


All these responses are probably contextualised by the growing salience of what can only be called a historical self in Indian public life. The first few generations of British administrators and English-educated Indians produced a substantial volume of historical work on India. Though historical scholarship (or at least something akin to that) was not entirely unknown in South Asia, the history the colonial historians produced was disjunctive with the constructions of the past the South Asians knew. It was history as it was conceived and institutionalised by the European Enlightenment. In any event, in South Asia history itself had never enjoyed the absolute legitimacy it had in modern Europe. Nor did history enjoy or seek, in its premodern forms, a monopoly on interpretations of the past. Most South Asians used other ways of constructing the past; European-style history to them was a new technology of organising memories and a new form of consciousness that negated many traditional forms of thought and threatened parts of the traditional moral order.6

It is not clear what kind of legitimacy history came to enjoy in India outside the modern sector. It certainly did not remain confined to school and college texts; nor did it substitute other forms of memory in even the middle-class families that opted for modern education and noisily began to lament the absence of historical memory in the Indians.7 It is true that many modernised Indians thought they had shed their past and chosen to live with a truncated self that had banished the ahistorical. But next to them lived other Indians, often in the same household, who led a life informed with rich but non-historical modes of constructing the past-with living myths, legends, epics and folkways. They also had their own nonhistorical ‘theories’ of what the historical mode meant or did.

The passions that attached to history among the historically minded Indians were, however, not the ones that attached to the discipline in the by-now more fully historical societies. Nor was it the same as the attitude to history of those outside history. The newcomers to history implicitly saw it as a new kind of epic or moral myth that had to be constantly affirmed to fight the wretched state of Indian society. Enemies of history increasingly began to look to them like enemies of the Indian people. One is tempted to propose, in the context of the experience of recent years, that one of the main sources of Hindu and Buddhist chauvinism in South Asia lies in the repressed, extra-historical attitude to history that undergirds South Asia’s historical self. In Pakistan, the same dynamics have informed the production and distribution of official history in a consumable form in recent decades.8 The newly-historicised South Asians have brought to history the passions traditionally associated with epic and legend. History, while historicising the world, dehistoricises itself. The passions that underlie history, therefore, remain unnegotiated and begin to use history as a massive defensive shield and a new justification for violence and expropriation. The Indian historians’ lack of self-reflexivity and their tendency to prioritise history over life in the name of objectivity, neither an uncommon trait in the global culture of history, have contributed handsomely to the new, violent uses of history in India.

The idea of history has apparently linked up not merely with the new idea of the state but also its various components. Among them are the concepts of nationalism and national security; the theory of progress as concretised in the idea of development; secularism, especially its various South Asian, Left-Hegelian versions; and a distinct Baconian concept of scientific rationality brought into public life as the final justification of the other components.9 When modern Indians, irrespective of ideological posture, opted for the post-Westphalian idea of the state, they also had to admit that European history was more relevant to Indian futures than the unreliable, scrappy accounts of the past in India. They did this so systematically that some thinkers came to feel that India’s history had been stolen and that the country was being forced to live on borrowed history.10

This emergence of the historical self, then, got quickly intertwined with the making and unmaking of Indian pasts and with the telescoped presence of European history in these attempts to ensure the reconstruction of India’s past along historical lines. This came in two versions. Either India’s historical past was made to look like a belated replication of European history or it became, as in some Left-Hegelian doctrines, all of India’s past and, hence, a point of departure for all social criticism. (So that in social and political analyses, concepts and narratives came mostly from the first world, while the conclusions drawn and prescriptions offered applied to the third world.11) All other memories related to the past were pushed out of serious intellectual consideration in modern India and were kept open for the use of the rustic, the women, the creative artists, the illiterate, the insane and the superstitious.

The self that emerges from the crucible of history has features different from that of the self that emerges from the crucible of myth, legend and epic. In both cases the self has to cope with memories, but the historical self configures these memories differently. In the first case, memories are available for scrutiny, for tests of reliability and validity. The scrutiny is usually from the point of view of distant, dispassionate objectivity, for such objectivity supposedly guarantees the truth-value of propositions about the past. Memories that fail the scrutiny are in effect declared non-memories or anti-memories, and either banished from history or studied clinically as rumours or stereotypes, or handed over as fantasies to artists and writers for creative use. If some nonetheless insist on retaining these memories in history, they can do so, but others, if spiteful, would call such history pseudo-history or, if generous, myths or fantasies. There are people or communities in the modern world which insist on living with ‘unreliable’ and ‘invalid’ history. These individuals and communities usually end up as case histories for psychiatrists and researchers in social pathology.

But there are others outside modernity who live with selves that originate and are grounded in ahistorical modes of constructing the past — in legends, myth and epic. None of these can be that easily fitted in the clinical format, though some first-generation, over-enthusiastic psychoanalysts did try to do so at one time. Sometimes, when return to childhood or to unencumbered, creative innocence becomes an important cultural theme, as in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such people and groups can even be seen as paragons of normality, creativity and transcendental awareness. The epithets ‘primitive’ and ahistorical may then carry an ambivalent load in historical societies where they may occasionally provide respite from the psychological closure the historical consciousness has come to represent.12 Otherwise, the effort is usually to separate the historical self from its ahistorical contexts. (The ongoing debate on the personality and biography of Jesus Christ in the West, for instance, parallels similar efforts that have been on since the middle of the 19th century in the case of Hindu gods and goddesses.13)

Configuring the historically-grounded self in an ahistorical society, however, acquires a second-order complexity where such a self does not get the ‘normal’ consensual validation from either the community or the larger culture. Such a self has to work on limited or partial endorsement from the scraps of historical selves constructed in the modern sector, often by psychologically uprooted, atomised individuals and small sect-like professional groups. History in India is basically a modest enterprise with a limited reach; it is not the entire constructed past. It has to compete with other such constructions and may either triumph over them or lose out to them.

The 19th century lament was: Indians had forgotten important parts of their self and modern history was a remedy for that forgetfulness. The lament in the 21st century may well be that modern India’s historical self has narrowed the society’s self-understanding by disconnecting large sections of Indians from crucial components of their self. Certainly, we cannot fight either the toady Hinduism of the Sangh Parivar or the consumer society and mass culture being so thoughtfully gifted to us without renegotiating our attitude to history and the idea of the state that sustains it.

p. 1 p. 2 Endnotes

Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is a Fellow of the
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi